Cambridge Chronicle: Cambridge residents to have say on $500K as part of participatory budget

Sara Feijo
November 13, 2014

For the first time ever, it’s up to Cambridge residents to decide how to spend $500,000 of the city’s 2015-2016 capital budget.

The goal of the participatory budget initiative, which was first implemented in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1989, is to involve residents in the budgeting and city-building process, and help ensure that the city’s capital plan reflects the priorities of residents.

Multiple cities in the United States have incorporated the process, including New York City, Chicago, Vallejo, California, San Francisco, and neighboring Boston.

Cambridge has invited 23 representatives from local nonprofit organizations and community members to be part of a steering committee that will be in charge of hosting a series of meetings throughout the city to collect ideas from residents.

“We’re really excited to work with the community, and we hope that there will be a lot of involvement,” Jeana Franconi, the city’s budget director, told the Chronicle on Monday, adding that the pilot initiative has been in the works for approximately two years.

The steering committee will hold its first meeting on Monday, Nov. 17, during which time volunteers will formally get to know each other and will start brainstorming about public outreach, Franconi said.

At a recent City Council meeting, councilors Marc McGovern and Denise Simmons emphasized the need to reach out to as many people as possible so that every resident gets the chance to participate.

“It’s very easy for certain groups to pack a room and say, ‘I want you to spend it on X, and we’re not going to support you if you’re not spending it on X,’” McGovern said on Monday, Oct. 27. “But X may not be the best solution for the city as a whole or groups of other people who can’t pack a room for various reasons.”

Simmons added, “Who participates is those who know, and those who know are those who have access because we are moving more towards technology, and people rather push a button than lick a stamp. But there’re some people that may be interested in this and not know about it.”

According to Franconi, the steering committee will hold meetings to collect ideas at all branches of the public library, as well as every neighborhood.

The steering committee, she said, will guide residents through the process, draft and approve the city’s participatory budgeting “rulebook,” which will include overall guidelines and a timeline, conduct outreach, recruit volunteers to turn ideas into concrete project proposals, and help organize the voting process.

“We’re going to host several meetings throughout the city, and we’ll be making flyers and having them translated into different languages. We do intend to hit all of the neighborhoods,” Franconi said at the meeting.

Residents will brainstorm and submit ideas for capital projects from December through February, at which point volunteer “budget delegates” will turn ideas into concrete proposals in January and February, Franconi said.City staff, she said, will vet proposals for feasibility and cost February through March, the city manager is expected to approve the proposals in March, and residents will vote on which projects they would like the city to fund in March.

Results, Franconi said, will be announced and winning projects approved in April for the city’s fiscal 2016 capital budget, and they will be submitted to the City Council for adoption.

“I’m really excited to see what the ideas are,” Franconi told the Chronicle. “We have a pretty robust capital program, and I’m hopeful the public will make us aware of things we haven’t thought before that are important for their neighborhoods.”

The Budget Department will conduct an evaluation of the pilot initiative April through June, she said.

For more information about the pilot initiative, or to submit ideas to the steering committee, visit

Contact Chronicle reporter Sara Feijo at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @s_fjo